Miles of open seas. Live entertainment. 24-hour concierge service. What more could you want while recovering from a medical procedure? Cruise ships are designed to pamper their guests with luxury, relaxation and fun. Now, they are cruising alongside the medical tourism industry as they look for new ways to offer more health services aboard the ships.
Most cruise ships are currently equipped to handle medical emergencies and curative treatments. They also usually have a spa and wellness center with basic beauty treatments like Botox, therapeutic massage, acupuncture and dermatological procedures.
But now, cruise lines are looking to increase medical treatments at sea, another way for cruise lines to set themselves apart from their competitors. Some experts say that incorporating more medical procedures into cruise lines won’t be that difficult because most ships already have an entire desk devoted to healthcare.
Adding some surgical rooms and equipment could be the next logical step, and they could follow the models set up by army ships that have full hospitals on board.
“Our aim is to introduce preventive medicine packages and services, more dedicated beauty medicine and beauty dentistry, as well as other noninvasive to less invasive medical procedures that are not offered on today’s cruise ships,” said Dr. Mohammed Saeme, an international expert on maritime health and wellness who represents Magic Discovery Group Ltd.
New technologies aboard the ships
Saeme explained that the Wellness & Cruise program will employ high-level professionals and state-of-the-art equipment for services in the areas of executive health, preventative medicine, health education, fitness, nutrition and weight management, beauty, beauty dentistry and general rejuvenation. All the treatments will be performed on the ships, not at the ports during the travel time because of national regulations.
“Our aim is to bridge cooperation with medical institutions and special hospitals to perform, on our behalf, the services and procedures we will not be able to perform on a ship setting,” Saeme said.
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines already conduct 34 remote dermatological consultations each month, said Dr. Arthur Diskin, vice president and global chief medical officer of the cruise line. They can send images of a rash to a dermatologist or forward test results to a doctor on land for a second opinion.
Royal Caribbean also uses telehealth technologies like digital x-rays and electronic medical records. Representatives for IOS Health Systems, the Miami-Dade company that is implementing the electronic medical record system, told The Miami Herald the new system will make it easier to flag potential outbreaks, sending an alert if six cases of gastrointestinal illness are reported within six hours.
Saeme said that he designed and developed his own system called SAEMED, a medical record and biometric operational system dedicated to maritime medical activities and with a link to the medical providers and hospitals on land. The server is accessible only to accredited medical providers with the biometric acceptance of the patient allowing a link between the family doctor or local hospital and the medical facility on the ship.
He said the system enables doctors to interface all their laboratory, cardiology and imaging equipment with the medical record system. In addition, all digital data is in real time and securely encrypted and stored in the patient’s medical file. The medical records are stored in the main server in Dallas, Texas and are owned by the patient. They are stored for as long as the patient wants them kept online.
Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Celebrity Cruise Lines have also established a relationship with Dialysis at Sea Cruises, which specializes in hemodialysis care while onboard a cruise ship. It provides a special renal care team with a nephrologist, dialysis nurses and certified technicians along with advanced equipment and supplies. This enables people on dialysis to enjoy all that a cruise has to offer.
Advantages and disadvantages
There are many advantages for both the cruise lines and patients. First, because cruise ships operate under international maritime regulations, the cruise lines can hire the most capable physicians from around the world. Saeme said that international doctors will be held to the accreditation and certification standards of their home countries.
It also enables patients to get treatments that aren’t available in their home country, and maybe even at a cheaper rate because it is less expensive to manage facilities onboard rather than on land. Plus, they are able to recuperate from a procedure in a relaxing environment, with doctors always present aboard. They will be treated as customers, not patients.
“Cruise lines are a definite potential provider of services of the rehabilitation component,” Diskin told the MTA. “Patients can travel home safely and comfortably in an environment catered to meet their post-operative needs.”
However, there are also some disadvantages. It is not really feasible to perform lengthy or dangerous surgeries because of limited space and distance from mainland medical centers. Although, all cruise ships have a helicopter pad in case of emergencies.
Also, patients might have to purchase additional health and travel insurance as it is not covered in the regular cruise ticket purchase. The cruise, as a health institution, also has its own liability and malpractice insurance in case of any problems that occur from their procedures.
The business model of the cruise ships will have to change a bit. Unlike with land procedures, patients can have a consultation with a doctor and then go back weeks later for the treatment. On a cruise ship, they will not be able to do so.
As for the future, Saeme said he believes that cruise ships will begin incorporating more complicated and intense procedures, rather than just noninvasive treatments.
“I am confident that with time, probably in a decade, we will see floating hospitals with all the procedures you are used to today in the main hospitals on land.”